Why do records matter?

The archives and records of voluntary organisations are vital assets. They are important for voluntary organisations as an evidence base and a source of institutional identity and memory. They also have an essential role in helping researchers to understand the roles of these organisations in society, past and present. Yet voluntary organisations’ archives and archives are often uniquely vulnerable, and never more so than in a period of austerity. We consider that the records and archives of voluntary and community organisations can…

1. Demonstrate your long-term impact

Archives can reveal the long-term impact of an organisation on a particular issue or community, and changes resulting from an organisation’s work over time. Striking examples are the record of 140,000 lives saved by the RNLI since its foundation, or stories from the archives of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement.

2. Inform your current work

Explorations of a charity’s history can be a way to stimulate discussion around current issues, for example poverty, disability or racism, raising the profile of the organisation’s work in that area today. In 2012 Scope used its 60th anniversary to launch a campaign to share stories by disabled people and their families about changes they would like to see in the future.

3. Show commitment to an issue, group or community over time

If charities are accused of ‘mission drift’, being able to prove long-standing involvement with causes and communities can help. Organisations also have a responsibility to their beneficiaries or service users; in many cases their lives may not have been recorded elsewhere. The Children’s Society’s Hidden Lives Revealed resource is an important account of the children in its care in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

4. Engage with local or national commemorations and anniversaries

The commemorations of the centenary of the First World War owed much to the availability of stories, images and documents from archive collections. For example London Zoo put on an exhibition about the Zoo at War and the archivist of Blind Veterans UK took part in Radio 4’s In Touch programme about changes to blind people’s lives since the War.

5. Celebrate the contribution of staff, trustees and volunteers

Stories about people who have been involved with an organisation in the past can inspire current generations of staff and volunteers. For example, Toynbee Hall investigated the contributions of some of its famous former residents who went on to bring about radical social change.

6. Help you understand how and why services were delivered differently in the past

Examining previous ways of working – what worked and what didn’t – can help when developing strategies for the future. NCVO’s papers, held at the London Metropolitan Archives, chart the changing relationship between the voluntary sector and government over 100 years. 

7. Support fundraising, values and your charity’s brand

Archives can help differentiate between organisations. Images or stories can be used to add colour to a fundraising bid or reinforce values and branding.

8. Show the value of the voluntary sector and volunteers to wider society

The archives of UK voluntary organisations are of great significance for social, political and cultural history; they can enhance knowledge and understanding of British society and relations with the wider world. Some collections have won international recognition, such as the Royal Voluntary Service’s UNESCO UK Memory of the World Status, which puts its records on a par with the Domesday Book. Some organisations, often with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, have created educational resources enabling schools and the wider public to explore social issues over time, such as the changing role of women in society (National Union of Women Teachers archive at UCL).